It’s game day at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and men’s basketball coach Kenny Anderson sits at a long wooden table in the athletic director’s office. The sound of the scoreboard buzzer, the tunes spun by the DJ operating from a card table at midcourt and the din of the crowd fill the room. Anderson is sipping Perrier and jotting down notes for the game against Voorhees College, which will tip off in about 30 minutes when the women’s game is over.
About 20 yards down the hall is the men’s locker room, a spartan space with old-school blue metal lockers, a marbled green linoleum tile floor and cinder block walls with chipped white paint. Some lights work, some don’t. These young men, mostly from Mississippi and Tennessee, sit in front of their lockers or stretch on the floor, each listening to his own music through wireless earbuds or thick headphones. The only audible sounds are the competing rhythms of two bouncing basketballs, one a staccato bam, bam, bam, bam, the other a more deliberate bounce, silence, bounce, silence, bounce.
Back in the athletic director’s office, Anderson, 48, completes his keys to the game (“1. Play with aggressiveness. 2. Move the ball on their traps. 3. Five guys must hit the boards …”) as a student manager comes rushing in. “We’re missing one of the uniforms,” she says.
Anderson asks whose uniform it is, and the girl answers.
“Well, that’s OK,” the coach replies. “He doesn’t play much anyway.”
Yes, this is the Kenny Anderson: a four-time New York City Player of the Year at Archbishop Molloy High School, ACC Rookie of the Year in 1990, part of “Lethal Weapon 3,” which led Georgia Tech to a Final Four, 14-year NBA veteran.
This is also the Kenny Anderson who was sexually abused as a boy, whose mother dealt with the demons of drug and alcohol addiction, who lost most of his NBA fortune and declared bankruptcy in 2005, who fathered seven children with five women, and who lost a high school coaching job in Florida after a 2013 DUI arrest.
And this is Fisk University, which boasts of its history as a historically black college or university (HBCU), where W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and John Lewis once studied but in more recent years has struggled to retain its accreditation, to attract students, to simply exist.
In that sense, Anderson and Fisk are both hopeful their partnership can help return them to glory.
Anderson started his day at a town house a block from campus where he lives alone. (His wife, Natasha, and their two teenage children, Kenny Jr. and Tiana, remain in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and plan to move to Nashville this summer.) After morning meetings, he went to lunch at Jersey Mike’s, where he tweeted that his “Shore Points” earned him a free sub. Before driving back to Fisk in his black Cadillac CTS, he stopped at home to pick up a big duffel bag overflowing with white towels: team laundry he washed and dried himself. Anderson has adapted quickly to the all-hands-on-deck environment at Fisk. One of his part-time assistant coaches doubles as the school’s sports information director. Until recently, athletics director Larry Glover not only ran the department but also coached the men’s basketball team and taught a class in the education department. Anderson doesn’t resent these low-budget realities. When alumni tell him they’re thankful he took the job at Fisk, he deflects the praise. He’s grateful Fisk took a chance on him, proud to work at an HBCU and energized to work with young black men.
Fisk president Kevin Rome arrived from Lincoln University in 2017, attracted to the challenge of preventing a legendary institution from disappearing. So far, he’s succeeding. While austerity measures have forced some employees to sacrifice a day of pay each month, enrollment is up (this year’s freshman class is twice as big as last year’s) and the endowment has grown by nearly $2 million this fiscal year. Rome believes that a stronger athletic program can create enthusiasm and revenue opportunities for the private university. He made Glover a full-time athletic director and hired a full-time athletic trainer. Rome had been part of conversations with other HBCU leaders about creating coaching opportunities for retired NBA players, and he jumped at the chance to hire Anderson when he applied for the job. The new coach doesn’t have a contract, and a school spokesman said his salary is “in the ballpark” of what Fisk pays other full-time athletic department employees.
“I knew his story and the challenges he has faced, and one of the things we pride ourselves on at HBCUs is that we give people second chances,” Rome said. “We don’t make the assumption that because someone has challenges that they don’t have value. With [Anderson’s] fame and skill set, I think he can transform our program and take it to a new level of competitiveness. It’s about exposure, but we’re going to give him time to build his own program. I don’t have unrealistic expectations.”
Anderson arrived at Georgia Tech in the fall of 1988 as one of the most hyped freshmen of the pre-YouTube, pre-Twitter era. He had picked up the game on New York playgrounds, and by the time he reached middle school he was the talk of the whole city.
Anderson’s legend only grew at Tech. The 6-foot left-hander handled the ball like a yo-yo, and his court vision was scary good. Anderson was happy, and in no hurry to turn pro. “I was having too much fun,” he said. “I loved Atlanta, loved Georgia Tech.” But his coach, fellow New Yorker Bobby Cremins, convinced him he’d be foolish to stay in college when he was assured of being one of the first few picks of the 1991 NBA draft. NBA scout Marty Blake had called Anderson the best point guard he’d ever seen coming into college in his 40 years in the business, and Anderson had only improved his game in two years under Cremins. After the Charlotte Hornets selected UNLV’s Larry Johnson with the No. 1 pick, NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the New Jersey Nets were taking Anderson No. 2.
Thus began a long career with extended stints in New Jersey and Boston, as well as stops in Charlotte, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; New Orleans; Indianapolis; Atlanta; and Los Angeles (Clippers). He was an All-Star for the Nets in 1994, and his career numbers were good but not spectacular: 12.6 points and 6.1 assists per game. (He ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in assists per game every year between 1993 and 1996.) He helped lead Boston to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002 but never won an NBA championship. While his Molloy jersey was sent to the Basketball Hall of Fame before Anderson even arrived at Georgia Tech, he won’t be going to Springfield as an NBA player.
Anderson is proud of his career (“I’m humble, but sometimes I have to remind my guys I was pretty damn good.”). But he admits he could have been a better professional. He enjoyed being famous, spending much of the estimated $63 million he made during his career, drinking champagne, smoking cigars, partying, buying more and more cars (11 at one time). “I lived a fast life,” he says, “and enjoyed every bit of it.” His private life was public: The ups and downs of marriages to Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa and Tami Akbar of MTV’s The Real World were covered in gossip columns, including the time he and Spinderella splashed champagne on each other during actor Wesley Snipes’ birthday party at a Manhattan nightclub.
But the death of his mother, Joan, in 2005 kick-started a slow, if uneven, march to maturity. Anderson quit playing pro ball that year, saying his heart wasn’t in it anymore. In the years that followed, he conducted youth clinics, coached amateur teams, made paid public appearances, collected income from a trust. He made some money playing in a 2014 basketball exhibition in North Korea with Dennis Rodman, a decision he says he regretted once he educated himself, too late, on the dictatorship.
While there have been significant setbacks — most notably his bankruptcy filing and the DUI that cost him his job coaching at the Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie, Florida — Anderson says he’s reached a point in his life where he finds happiness in simple pleasures: sitting at the dinner table with his family, sharing life lessons with his Fisk players, enjoying a meal at Bojangles’ or at Nashville’s Kayne Prime Steakhouse. But now he heads home when buddies hit the bars in Music City. When temptations arise, he asks himself if his mother would approve. “She would be proud of me, man,” he says through tears. “I’m doing something important. I’m coaching young men now. I’ve got to be responsible. They’re looking up to me. I can’t be running around going crazy.”
Anderson hasn’t reached this point alone. He met Natasha when she was sitting courtside at a Miami Heat game while he played for the Indiana Pacers. Through a ball boy, Anderson slipped her a note and the rest is history. But Natasha is no groupie. She’s a health care administrator and a rock of stability. Anderson also regularly sees a therapist, with whom he talks about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. He remembers being outside with friends when, more than once, a neighbor lured the boys into his house and down to the basement, where he molested them. “One time,” Anderson says, “he was penetrating one of my friends and I ran out.” He recalls when he was 11 begging his mom to let him play for a new coach at a tournament in Brooklyn. The coach brought Anderson to his house and attempted to rape him. Again, Anderson went running. This time, he got on the A train alone for the first time in his life, somehow finding his way home.
In sessions with his therapist, Anderson has come to understand that some of his womanizing may have been a response to this abuse, a self-destructive way of confirming his sexuality. “Because I was molested [by men], I didn’t want to seem like I was gay. I went to the other extreme: ‘I’m going to prove I’m a womanizer. I’m going to prove to everybody I’m not gay because I’ve been molested.’ I had to learn it wasn’t my fault, through time and getting professional help.”
Anderson never told his mother about the abuse, not wanting to upset her. He finally revealed his secrets in the 2017 documentary Mr. Chibbs (his mom’s nickname for him), produced by Jill Campbell. “I told Jill I’ll sacrifice myself in order to help others. And sometimes that’s difficult to do, but I did it.”
Shot in 2014, the film follows Anderson as he returns to Queens, where he is still a hero. He speaks to the basketball team at Molloy about the stability the school and his coach, Jack Curran, provided him when he was sleeping in the same room with his mom and her abusive boyfriend. He calls on former mentors such as Cremins, his former agent David Falk, and the brothers Vincent and Kenny Smith (the latter the former University of North Carolina and NBA star). The scenes are poignant. These men appear to have life figured out while Anderson is still searching. Anderson visits two of his children who live with their mother in New Jersey. He hasn’t been around these boys much, and there’s an awkward distance between them. But even in the most humbling encounters, such as when he visits Falk and it’s clear Anderson is no longer a valuable commodity (Nike still sends Anderson gear, but they don’t pay him to wear it), Anderson has an undeniable charisma.
Anderson says he’s continued to grow since then and now believes his purpose in life is to help other people, especially young people. He’s grateful for the opportunity at Fisk, where even if he has to do the team’s laundry and take 12-hour bus rides to road games, he can keep himself occupied doing something worthwhile.
“An idle mind is a terrible mind,” he says, and he’s nothing if not busy now. He admits he has a lot to learn about coaching. Fisk won just eight games this year after Glover led them to 17 victories last year. But even Glover attributes the decline to significant changes on the roster and says he believes the program has a higher ceiling under Anderson. Like many great players who have made the transition to coaching, it can be vexing for Anderson to teach aspects of the game that he understands intuitively. He doesn’t hide his frustration when his point guards commit turnovers or fail to see plays developing the way he does. Starting point guard Victor Alston takes his coach’s admonitions in stride. “It’s so much pressure,” he says. “But I understand where he’s coming from. He gets loud, but I just accept it. I know he just wants me to be better. If he’s not saying something to me, then he doesn’t care.”
Competing as an independent in NAIA Division II, Fisk has struggled to attract superior players in the past. Although he can offer only partial scholarships (a combination of academic and athletic aid), Anderson has already connected with a different caliber of recruit. But for now, he works with the hand he’s been dealt. “I love our guys, but it’s 50-50 what you’re going to get on the court,” he says. “They’ll play hard, but will they play smart? It’s like I always tell them: ‘I love you off the court. But on the court, you drive me f—ing batty.’ ”
The women’s game has ended. Fisk’s Ladies of RAGE dancers sashay into the tiny gym, and the DJ has the capacity crowd of 800 dancing to Migos’ “T-Shirt.” Anderson walks into the locker room, where his players are waiting:
We haven’t beaten this team for who knows how long, but we have the team to do it. Let’s play with a chip on our shoulder, play smart, play together.
No. 1 is their point guard, he makes it happen. No. 3 is the spot-up. It’s 35 we’ve got to put pressure on. That’s who took over the game last time. Our defense was great, he just took over. They couldn’t score on us otherwise. He’s quick and crafty. We have to harass him.
Late in the game [last week] we started making mental errors when they sped us up. No floating passes. We float a pass, it’s going to be a steal.
You’ve got to want to compete and compete for each other. Let’s stay together through adversity.
Anderson yields the floor to senior David Patton, who leads the team in prayer and then a call-and-response: “One team on 3, one grind on 6. One, two, three, one team! Four, five, six, one grind!”
Anderson is out of his seat the entire first half, at turns encouraging his guys (“Good shots, good shots!”) and turning to assistants, grimacing with disgust. “Careless turnovers. We went over this!”
This game is fast and physical, as Anderson likes it, but turnovers and missed shots keep the score down. Fisk jumps out to an early lead, 15-9, but then that crafty No. 35, Denzel Famble, begins to take control. At halftime, Voorhees leads 32-30.
Anderson and his assistants gather in the athletic director’s office, giving the players a few minutes alone in the locker room. Glover prints out the halftime stats. Anderson is pleased — his team is out-rebounding Voorhees and has committed fewer turnovers.
Moving to the locker room, he’s upbeat and encouraging.
We can get anything we want. Jump shots, layups. Let the game come to you.
If you’re going to foul, foul. Don’t let them finish the play.
The game is going to be close, and [Famble] is going to want to take the game over. This is our day to win.
Marcus Summerville and Addison Miller lead Fisk to a quick start in the second half, and with 14:35 remaining, they are ahead 46-41. Voorhees calls timeout.
Anderson sits on a folding chair in front of his team and grabs a whiteboard and a marker to diagram a play. But the marker is out of ink. Assistant coach Russell Acklin hands him a new one, but it’s too late. The buzzer sounds and it’s time to play. Alston’s playing great defense in Anderson’s man-to-man set, and Fisk is ahead 51-48 with a little more than 10 minutes remaining. But then things begin to fall apart. Patton is called for a technical. Teammate Eddie Galloway is whistled for a flagrant foul. And just as Anderson predicted in his pregame talk, Famble begins to take over, scoring nine of Voorhees’ next 13 points.
The final score is 75-68 in favor of Voorhees, another loss in a season that has seen twice as many defeats as victories. In the locker room, boxes of hot Domino’s pizza rest on a table while players sit with heads down, staring at the floor, some with tears in their eyes. Few outside this small gymnasium in North Nashville were aware of this game, but for these players, it meant everything. The seniors have never beaten Voorhees. Anderson walks to the center of the room.
Hey, I’m not negative, really. Great effort, great hustle. Basketball 101, we just don’t got it. Fundamentals and being disciplined. Turnovers for no reason. But there’s a saying, ‘Pressure bursts pipes.’ When that smoke comes, some people run away from it. In order to gain confidence and know you’re ready to play when the heat is on, you have to put in the work all the time.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but we just don’t got no finishers. Executing the plays, getting the ball to the right people at the right times.
He walks back to Glover’s office to rehash the game with his assistants. Out on the court, the DJ entertains hundreds of fans who have stuck around to dance. The same student manager who began the evening with news of the missing uniform speed-walks down the hall to deliver Anderson a Styrofoam takeout container of food and some loose change.
In a few minutes, he’ll walk out to his Cadillac, drive to his town house and call his wife in Florida. He says he’ll toss and turn all night, as he does after every defeat. Still, when Anderson considers where he’s been and what he wants to do with the rest of his life, he believes he’s where he needs to be. He’s been famous since he was 13 years old. Fame has its rewards, he says, but in some ways he always wanted to run away from it, to find something bigger than himself. He says he’s found that at Fisk.
“Tonight,” he says, “I’m happy.”